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Content delivery through an interactive textbook

This case study has been fully written up for the University of Manchester's Humanities Teaching Academy. The original video and its transcript are included below.

I teach economics at the University of Manchester. In this video I want to give you a very brief walk-through through an alternative content delivery technique which we introduced here for a year one advanced maths course for Economics students. It's a very large unit. Of course, this year everyone was forced to think about alternative content delivery: ways other than a lecture. Mostly we've done that by recording videos like these to replace the lecture but in this particular unit we decided to do something else. We decided to deliver the content through something like an interactive textbook and I just want to give you a very brief insight into how that looks.

The reason why I'm interested in this - and perhaps some of you are interested in this - is that we are considering using this even once we're allowed to have lectures and contact students again. By perhaps delivering the content through such an online, asynchronous way we can free up time in our meetings with students to do something else: something more interactive, something that helps students perhaps a little bit better in the process of learning the material.

Rather than explaining everything in words let me just show you some things. This is my website - a course website - it's a BlackBoard page and the technology which I'll show you in a moment is called Möbius by DigitalEd. There are other technologies; I know Xerte for instance is an example of a technology which allows you to do similar things. So perhaps firstly you can notice this website is organized by weeks, so we have a little subpage for every week. Let me go to week four, for instance. There's some information and learning outcomes and then the core of the material is delivered through these what we call "lessons". So let me go into one of these lessons to give you an idea what that looks like. On first sight this is just a website, perhaps not even a very attractive looking website. There's unfortunately only limited ways to manipulate this and you can click through the sections here. Now the first thing that's of course available to normal websites is that you can tie in videos. Here for instance: that is just a video. But then the aspect of this what makes this a sort of an interactive textbook is that you can explain something and then immediately ask students a question. So students can see "have I actually understood?"

So there was a video explaining something then here's a question. Okay, it's about multivariate functions: which of these two plots matches to which function? So let me just guess an answer here and students can do this and then they can immediately check "am I right?" No in this case I'm wrong. They can sort of confirm that it's right the other way round. So there's an example where there isn't much feedback given here but let me move on. So here's another example: there's just some text delivery of material with pictures and that's the next question. There's a function and we're asking what's the level curve at a particular value and then again students have to give an answer here. "Describe the shape of the double curve" - let's say it's quadratic - and that's another question. So we have a set of questions then we ask students can check how did I do. Since I guessed all of this I got all of this wrong so in this case I'm actually providing some feedback. You can decide if the students should be seeing that feedback or not. So always students can see what the feedback is. So I think that possibly gives you enough of an idea of what what this means. Here we have another matching question. I didn't even check now but I got it right. I think this gives you enough of an idea of what this sort of technology does and why it's called interactive.

Now there are a few important aspects to this which makes this particularly attractive for more quantitative subjects. Firstly - perhaps you could guess by looking at this - I've written all of this in LaTeX and then copy-and-pasted it across. There's a bit of editing left in that Möbius engine but basically my material is written in LaTeX. For us who like using LaTeX that is a huge advantage.

The second aspect is that you can build in randomization into these questions. Let me just quickly show you. Here's a question. On this occasion I haven't built in any randomization but you see, for instance, there's a factor two in this equation. You could make this a random value so the next time the student comes it's four and then it changes the answer; the answers can adapt automatically to this. The reason why you can do this is because this engine links to Mathematica so you can basically write the code hidden behind these questions to randomize this. That also allows you to do quite complex things when you ask questions. You can possibly guess that if that's an engine that allows you to ask questions you can also deliver tests - even exams - through this engine and make use of this sort of randomization technology. This is excellent especially in times where students have to do exams remotely because it means that every student sees a somewhat different exam paper.

On this particular occasion where, here at the University of Manchester, we use Möbius, this system links with our Virtual Learning Environment (BlackBoard, in our case). That means you can see whether students have done a particular lesson, whether they have done the questions, and how they have done with these questions, if you're interested in looking at this. So you can track back what students have done.

The reason why I was keen to record this and tell you this is, we were sort of forced to use this technology this year due to the COVID pandemic and us not being allowed to give lectures but I received a lot of really good feedback from students on this resource. They really appreciate the fact that they have an asynchronous resource and that they have a resource which immediately allows them to test their understanding as they go through the material. So even when we're allowed to go back to lectures in this particular course I will keep using this resource, thereby freeing up time for face-to-face meetings to do other things. What this pandemic has therefore forced upon us I think in many occasions will actually stay with us and we will pick things which actually work quite well, like in this particular case. This sort of content delivery will carry forward into the future.

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